This past weekend, I was invited to attend a 24-hour Game Jam by one of my good friends, Vik. Both of us having absolutely zero experience developing games, but we decided “screw it” and went to see what’s up. Worst case scenario, we’d make a couple of new connections and call it a night.
The jam was held run by two groups of gamers known as the Voxelles and Sugar Gamers—both positive groups focusing on gender diversity and female representation in gaming and game development. The event was presented by IGDA Chicago and held at 2212, a building designed for producing all sorts of creative media.
Upon first entry, we were greeted with an enthusiastic hello and given name tags. Past the front desk, we were greeted by a wide room filled with empty tables and chairs all waiting for eager developers to set up their workstations. Vik and I went to introduce ourselves to the heads of the group and took a seat to wait for the pizza and presentation. We felt a little out of place at first but found a similarly aged music graduate with experience scoring for games and advertisements. His name was Sal. Sal had a lot of information to give about the music side of game development.
He brought to my attention just how vital it is to be paying attention to where the player is standing, take into account multiple skill levels, and how distracting the music may be. For example, if a player is playing a puzzle game, the music may play for a little bit, but if one player isn’t very good, they’ll be stuck for a while, so the music has to play either for a short time or must not be annoying. He also brought up how in the original Halo trilogy the music would fade out when you spent too much time in one area because they didn't want the player to get irritated.
During this time, some of my other friends had come to surprise me and help out at the jam, which was incredibly uplifting as I hadn’t seen them in a bit. Others had already begun setting up. One guy had a full-sized desktop and two large monitors ready to go. Others had teams of six with a blend of Windows laptops and MacBooks. All were ready to start working.
After an announcement—the theme was “cyberpunk” ideally with some spooky tints to it for the Halloween season—everyone grouped up and got ready to work. My friends and I gathered in a corner away from the tables, as we wanted to leave the room for actual developers. Vik did some browsing online and ended up finding a visual novel creator. They’re a creative group, and since the engine covered the development side of things, it became entirely viable for them to come up with a title. Imagine that! While they began work on that, I went around and took some photos and interviewed some groups. I felt like a bit of a bother—interrupting during the brainstorming stage—but each team was very welcoming and let me in on some great insight.
The most eye-opening fact to me was that Game Jams aren’t necessarily about making a complete title, but rather to learn about yourself and improve your skills. You get randomly grouped with other people who may or may not be as skilled as you, and you go hard at making a title. Jumping into this with a competitive mindset is sure to lead to frustration and disappointment. The most important skill here is your people skills.
That’s not to say there weren’t some developmental experts here. One group I talked to had a variety of skill levels. A couple of members were attending their first ever jam, while one member had been to ten! These 24 hours aren’t just spent in dev-work. It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses and attend to them. It’s entirely possible that your whole group are great artists but have little experience coding. That’s where the real creativity comes in.
While talking with some groups, I would go back to my team to see what they were up to and to document my thoughts. In the short time I was gone, they had an entire story written, with Vik already learning the basics of Python. Progress was being made! I loved seeing my friends creativity coming together so quickly. While jotting everything down, Sarah came over to talk to us, and I gathered some great insight on previous Game Jams and what it’s like in the host's position.
According to her, a majority of games are practically unplayable after the time limit, with teams scrambling to get to the playtesting stage less than half-an-hour before the deadline. This goes along with the “do-it-for-fun” mindset. Regardless of if it’s entirely playable, it’s already insane that people can come up with assets, sound effects, gameplay mechanics, and more in such a short time frame. She also informed me about some of the regulars at the show. One developer was from Zynga and wasn’t here to win anything. By the end of the show, he had designed a fully playable VR title all by himself! It looked like something you’d find on Steam for fifteen dollars! I asked her how many of these games end up being finished later for publishing, and while she said not many, the fact that a few do is incredible!
It was around this point that one group had left for the night, so we nabbed their table and started more work on our title. This was the most fun for me, as I was involved in the actual development side of games. We came up with a cyberpunk aesthetic to stick with and went out to take photos of each other in true visual novel style with sensual poses and everything! Upon taking the photos, my visual designer friend, Joe, uploaded them into his 8-bit app and created the theme. Cheridan and Kat were working on the story, and Vik was still learning Python.
The game was rough, but it was something! Unfortunately, around 1-2 AM, Joe and the girls had to leave as they have real jobs to go to in the morning, so it was up to Vik and me to finish the game. That didn’t end up happening, as they were the creative storytellers and we are the more technical people, but we spent the rest of the time coding up to the story's stopping point and catching up on other work. By 5 AM we were babbling wrecks talking about anything and everything that came to our minds, and we were able to truly admire the dedication of the teams still going hard at their projects. I heard a terrifying thing around then: another team’s member saying “I’m not in a good state of mind, dude. I just had to rethink our entire game.” I have to imagine that’s a regular occurrence.
Vik and I ended up napping on the floor for a couple of hours and then napped at the table while trying to get some work done. We were finished. We ended up going home to recoup for the day, with intentions to head back to the jam before the awards. While we did get to spend a little time with the games being shown off, unfortunately, we had to leave before announcing the winners, as we had some other life issues pop-up.
Despite the quick ending to the weekend, it was pretty damn cool to see these randomly paired groups of developers grind to make a game in such a short period. Now that I have a better understanding of it, I'd love to attend one of these again and finish something, even if it's mundane.